trade unions

   Trade unions are associations of workers who combine to safeguard their collective interest and to maintain or improve their working conditions and wage levels. Union aims can be industrial, social or political. They are either closed organizations, concentrating on the interests of defined groups of workers, or open, seeking to increase the range of their membership. The trend since the 1970s has been towards openness through conglomerates of distinct organizations or through mergers. Closed unions have suffered a drastic fall in membership and many unions have united to survive. Nonetheless, British society is still characterized by multi-unionism.
   Eighty percent of union members are affiliated to the coordinating centre of British politics, the Trade Union Congress (TUC). The TUC meets annually when collective policies and strategies are outlined, with voting strength related to union size. The TUC also elects the General Council which carries out policy between congresses. Its current General Secretary is John Monks, who succeeded Norman Willis in 1993. The 1990s have seen the growth of business unionism, with Monks attempting to update the TUC’s image, offering affiliates technical and legal advice and financial services. Eight of the ten largest unions also maintain links with the Labour Party by paying political levies and having a strong, though diminished, influence at the Labour conference and within the party’s National Executive.
   In the postwar years, trade unions enjoyed good relations with government. In the era of the postwar consensus, governments joined with trade unions and business in economic planning, and unions were consulted before legislation as a matter of course. However at the end of the 1960s, union militancy began to increase, reflecting public dissatisfaction with Britain’s relative economic decline. This was manifested in the increased number of political strikes, work-ins, occupations and demands for greater worker participation in industrial decision making.
   Edward Heath and the Conservatives came to power in 1970, committed to the Selsdon Programme which advocated right-wing economic reforms and curbs on trade union power. The latter was attempted with the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which would prevent industrial action harmful to the economy, prohibit unofficial strikes and limit the powers of the closed shop, the practice whereby individuals must join the relevant union as a condition of employment at a specific workplace. Union opposition to this Act was universal, and widespread strikes, originally in sympathy with London dockers who were imprisoned for withholding their labour, rendered the legislation unworkable. Union strength in this period is demonstrated by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), whose members received a 27 percent pay rise after a strike in 1972 and then objected to Heath’s statutory incomes policy. Heath went to the country in 1974 asking whether the unions or the government ran the country; Labour was elected.
   Labour overturned the preceding administration’s trade union legislation in return for wage restraint in a voluntary incomes policy in a deal known as the Social Contract. However, this agreement resulted in real cuts in living standards, especially in the public sector, and the TUC was unable to prevent increased industrial unrest. This culminated in the Winter of Discontent and electoral success for the Conservatives in 1979. Mrs Thatcher was ideologically opposed to corporatism; following the New Right economic theories of F.A.von Hayek and Milton Friedman, she believed that the market works better unimpeded by the state. The unions were blamed for the nation’s economic ills, and their power was systematically reduced through legislation. Secondary picketing was outlawed in 1980, but 1982 saw the most radical changes with the Employment Act, which limited strikes to those concerning pay or conditions, tightened procedures on the closed shop, made occupations and sit-ins illegal and reduced trade union immunities. Further legislation in the 1980s and 1990s made requirements for strike ballots more stringent, restricted rights for union officials and forced unions to give seven days notice for industrial action. The basic right to be in a union was also threatened, with workers at GCHQ from 1984 no longer allowed union membership.
   The defeat of the NUM in the 1984–5 miners’ strike was a watershed, after which the trade unions were forced to come to a new realism in their dealings with government. The miners were tackled when coal stocks were high, after a general election and when the police were ready to deal with mass picketing. The strike was a disaster for the NUM itself, with the breakaway of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, and its consequent inability to combat the 1992 pit closures programme. NUM membership fell from 250,000 in 1979 to 8,000 in 1993.
   The Conservatives succeeded in curbing union strength, with media backing and some public support as unions were perceived to be too powerful and undemocratic. They were aided by the changing face of industry, the erosion of Britain’s manufacturing base and the increase in de-unionized service industries. In addition, recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s, the ineffective opposition of the Labour Party and the embourgeoisement of the working class weakened union strength and solidarity within the labour movement.
   Trade unions are now considerably weaker than in the 1970s. Militancy has been replaced with business unionism, and the strike rate is low. The unions are consistently denied access to the corridors of power, and consultation is limited, corporatist bodies having been abandoned. Union membership has fallen from thirteen million in 1979 to nine million in 1994, and is a public sector preserve. Nevertheless, unions are still active and seeking to recruit members outside of their traditional areas of influence. They now look to increase their influence at European level, particularly in the light of developments according them a positive role such as the Social Chapter. Some trade unions outside of the TUC have grown in the 1980s and 1990s, and collective bargaining still covers about half of the workforce, suggesting that trade unions will continue to be prominent in British politics for the conceivable future.
   See also: Labour Party; New Labour; NUJ
   Further reading
    Kessler, S. and Bayliss, F. (1995) Contemporary British Industrial Relations, London: Macmillan.
    McIlroy, J. (1995) Trade Unions in Britain Today, 2nd edn, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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